Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and General John McClernand at Antietam. October 3, 1862. (Library of Congress)
On October 3, 1863, in the midst of a civil war that was tearing the country and American spirit at its seams, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the traditional Thanksgiving celebration--which had existed in several states for some time--would be a national holiday celebrated each year on the fourth Thursday in November.
Sarah J. Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book and author of the classic "Mary Had a Little Lamb" nursery rhyme, had campaigned for over fifteen years to make Thanksgiving a "national and fixed Union Festival," and struck a chord with Lincoln in a letter to the president dated five days before his proclamation. The festival had been present in the states for centuries before Lincoln's proclamation, with most tracing the first Thanksgiving back to Massachusetts in 1621. Presidents George Washington and James Madison called for days of Thanksgiving during their administration, and the Continental Congress declared a Thanksgiving holiday in 1777 for the original 13 colonies.
By the time Lincoln entered office the holiday was celebrated through much of the union, and would even emerge in Confederacy. PBS notes that after the Confederate victory at Bull Run, Jefferson Davis called for a Thanksgiving celebration in the South on Sunday, July, 28, 1861. Davis had also declared a "day of Thanksgiving" in the Confederacy in September 1862. In addition to Hale's persistance, Vera H-C Chan writes that Lincoln's 1863 proclamation may have been politically motivated--as the holiday traced its roots to evangelical Protestants who were the leading voices for the abolition of slavery and the holiday. Slave owner and States' rights advocate Virginia Governor Henry Wise was against it, and called Thanksgiving a "theatrical claptrap."
After the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Lincoln first declared a Thanksgiving celebration on Thursday August 6. A few months later, during the time when Lincoln was contemplating delivering an address on the purpose of war (the Gettysburg Address), Lincoln issued the October 3 proclamation which would set the path forward for the national November Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today. Lincoln's proclamation was publishing in the New York Times two days after the president issued it. Below is the text of the proclamation:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.